Inside the Collection

Instrument of Torture – the thumbscrew

Photograph of Thumbscrew torture device
Thumbscrew, torture device, date unknown, Powerhouse Museum

The image above is of a thumbscrew which I came across here in the Museum’s collection while looking for something far more innocuous – a wooden mallet made from a girder of the old Sydney Stock Exchange.

I had to move a few objects before I could get a good look at the mallet and this little wooden object caught my eye. I had no idea what it was actually used for and had placed it on the trolley when something struck me as being a little odd. What was that screw for … cracking seed? I wrote the number down on a piece of paper and when I got back to my desk typed it into our database to find the following description.

“A3541 – 1 Thumb screw of torture (SB). …made of wood”

Detail of thumbscrew torture device
Torture device, thumbscrew, date unknown, Powerhouse Museum

The European use of torture as a judicial instrument goes back to Greek and Roman times and unfortunately (as seen by recent events at Guantanamo Bay) is still being employed today.

In Europe from the medieval times there were a set of tools which were approved for extracting confessions. These included the ‘rack’, ‘barbed hooks’, leaden balls, and cords for compressing the arms, but this did not stop many other cruel devices being used. Interestingly judicial torture was supposedly illegal in England as it contravened the Magna Charta.

The name ‘thumbscrew’ is applied to all manner of devices which can be screwed using the thumb and fingers, but in the case of the torture instrument its use has led to it being associated with its application rather than its mechanics. European ‘thumbscrews’ used for torture were usually made of metal and accommodated two fingers or thumbs at the same time.

This wooden thumbscrew was donated to the museum by C. L. G. Fielder in 1942 along with a Chinese scent bottle, some ivory boxes and figurines as well as a small mother of pearl fan. Suggesting this is perhaps a Chinese version of the device. Can anyone confirm this?

R. D. Melville, The Use and Forms of Judicial Torture in England and Scotland, The Scottish Historical Review, 1905

Geoff barker, Curatorial, 2012

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